Requiring Religious Mentoring


The above is an article which caused a discussion between a Facebook friend and me. The friend is very much in favor of the Ohio Governor’s initiative, saying that inner city schools in particular are ineffective, and that mentoring could very possibly save a lot of children from perpetuating the cycle of poverty. That much I agree with. I wouldn’t limit the problem to inner city schools, though it’s arguably more acute there than anywhere else. The part I have trouble with is the requirement that each school system partner with a religious group and an industrial group.
My problem is not necessarily with religious people, many of whom I’m sure could provide very helpful mentoring to troubled children, nor with individual representatives of industry, who could very likely do the same. It’s with the REQUIREMENT that school systems partner with such groups. My Facebook friend disagrees.
Much of his disagreement has to do with the link above, an article he feels provides a skewed picture of what Governor Kasich’s program intends to accomplish. He may be right, but I’m not so sure.
This link articulates a lot of the reasons for my questioning of Kasich’s action. It’s a talk given by Chris Hedges, formerly a foreign correspondent who covered wars in the Balkans, and other foreign news stories for two decades before returning to the United States. In this talk he says that the America he left was starkly different from the America he returned to.
Hedges, besides his experience as a journalist, has a theological degree, and says that one of his teachers warned, in the 1970s or 80s, that the Religious Right was a dangerous movement that could be compared with fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s. He says he didn’t take that statement very seriously at the time, but at the time of the talk recorded on YouTube (almost eight years ago) had found he agreed with his teacher. He adds that his teacher had some direct experience of fascism, having lived in Germany from 1935-1936, and left that country because the authorities strongly suggested he should, since he had had close connections with groups who opposed the Nazis.
My friend accused me of having a negative view of “people of faith”. I replied that I DO have a negative view of SOME of them, but by no means all, and while I think there are some religious people who could perform a valuable service as mentors, there are others I wouldn’t want within miles of any child for whom I had responsibility.
I find myself in an interesting position. At least two of my Facebook friends are atheists, and an acquaintance through another friend is not only an atheist, but what I would call a science fanatic. On the other hand, one of my friends at work is a very strong Christian of the Fundamentalist variety who disagrees with and disapproves of the teaching of evolution. I disagree with all those friends, but respect their viewpoints, as I think they respect mine.
Mr. Hedges’ view is that the impetus behind the Religious Right movement is despair: millions of ordinary Americans have been marginalized by economic forces and policies, and see no way to counter those forces except through revolutionary action. The beliefs encouraged by the Religious Right takes them out of reality into a black and white world, which destroys the moderate and pluralistic middle of the society to create more and more polarization between groups who increasingly mirror each other (the term Hedges uses) in their actions, which tend more and more to be violent. He reports that the dictator of Croatia and the dictator of Serbia in the 1990s needed each other as enemies. Is this not what we’re witnessing in our own country?
The real Nazis in Germany, and the real Communists in Russia, for example, were a very small percentage of the population, but were able to get the support of millions because they were willing to do anything to get it, creating propaganda against anyone they disapproved of, and eventually persecuting those “enemies” violently. There is fear of that happening among both conservatives and liberals, but neither side seems to do much to constructively bridge the ideological gap between them.
Hedges says that after the Reichstag fire, when Hitler instituted martial law, hundreds of thousands of Germans protested, but didn’t have the leaders to make their protest effective. Leaders of the Social Democratic party in Germany had fled to Switzerland. The Religious Right, he says, is ready for another catastrophe like 9/11, financial collapse, or ecological destruction, to use as an excuse to seize power. Those are the kinds of events totalitarians have used in the past.
Why would religious people be willing to support such an agenda? They have in the past. Most German churches supported Hitler. Religious people who opposed him were a distinct minority. The Roman Catholic Church, of which Hitler was a nominal member (and which never excommunicated him) thought the Nazis were less dangerous than the Communists, and were inclined to support them (or at least not condemn them). Christianity, after all, has a long history of being authoritarian.
The Religious Right also encourages its members to feel victimized. I quoted to my Facebook friend what Rick Santorum said: that President Obama wasn’t fighting as hard as possible against ISIS because he wanted ISIS to persecute Christians in the Middle East. I think that’s a ridiculous idea, but the fact that Santorum said it indicates he thought a lot of people would agree. That kind of statement may be superficially religious, but in my opinion has little to do with any genuine religious feeling.
I asked my friend what he meant by “people of faith”. Are those people who believe what they’ve been taught, people who have experiences relatively few have, or what, exactly? After all, people can be brought to believe “any old story”, and to call their beliefs religious doesn’t automatically make them valid.
In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and love our neighbors as ourselves. I don’t believe that’s the Religious Right’s approach. Mr. Hedges said he experienced a chill after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and he saw many members of Blackwater descend on the city. Blackwater was a prominent paramilitary organization in the Iraq war, but a civilian one, able to operate outside of legal constraints. Its owner, says Hedges, is closely associated with the Religious Right. Given a national catastrophe, what would prevent them, or an organization like them, from descending on Washington, DC? That could be the beginning of a closed society in which all disagreement is heresy, and therefore punishable.
It’s possible that my friend is right, and my fears are unwarrented. Perhaps I’m extrapolating too much from Governor Kasich’s initiative. There’s nothing wrong with the goal of stopping the cycle of poverty, violence, and family breakdown in the inner cities. But my concern is with the REQUIREMENT that school systems partner with both religious and industrial groups in this attempt. I wouldn’t want individual representatives of either group to be excluded, but requiring their presence sets off alarm bells for me. There are many groups with agendas not good for society as a whole. Conservatives are suspicious of indoctrination by government, and there are certainly precedents for their concern. I’m also concerned about indoctrination by religious and business groups, and there are precedents for my concern too.
An esoteric teacher said, “There is no good or evil. Only lying.” That’s a statement many will disagree with, but one that I think is worth pondering. One of the things he meant by that is that good and evil are relative to one’s AIM. He began from the view that humans as a whole are asleep, and behave like machines. If one’s aim is to wake up, then good is whatever helps one wake up, and evil is whatever keeps one asleep. A totalitarian group has a different aim: to achieve power and keep it. Its aim is one that contradicts democracy, and the tolerance of different viewpoints that makes democracy possible. Lying would be essential to constructing such a society. Some people might find that comfortable to live in. I suspect most would not.
Several months ago I read an article about a man who had left the Westboro Baptist Church. He said one reason he did was because he found acceptance outside the church in his daily life. He added that there were a lot of good people in that church who felt it necessary to say and do hateful things for fear of going to hell if they did not. This may also be true of many members of the Religious Right, who have bought into the view of their leaders, but might be persuaded that view is mistaken. The leaders are unlikely to change, though. I think (and hope I’m wrong) they’re committed to a path that won’t be good for this country as a whole. I see Governor Kasich’s initiative as an invitation to such people. I hope I’m wrong about that too.


Christmas Songs


I don’t care if I never hear another stereotypical Christmas carol. Partly because they’ve been played to death, partly because of my disenchantment with official Christianity. Official Christianity has inspired some pretty wonderful music, but Christmas carols usually aren’t that good, especially when overfamiliar.
Secular Christmas music affects me differently.
I’m not sure why so much of it has been written, but the reason may have to do with what I like about it: I associate it with the 1950s, a time that was very comfortable for me. Maybe comfortableness is what people in general like about it. It’s not about horrible things. Maybe it denies horrors.
Some of it is silly or trivial. Songs about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer (I’m grateful not to have heard that one for quite awhile), or Rudolph aren’t meant to be taken too seriously (though Rudolph has a Moral). Others are essentially romantic songs more about pleasures of making love in the winter, and nothing deeper.
There are some that are different, though. It is Christmas has an unusual structure that at least makes it interesting to listen to. I’ll Be Home for Christmas is a little darker, about someone stranded in a presumably less than pleasant place yearning to get home. Home is the place of security, and most of these songs implicitly deny the existence of any other thing. All that exists is cozy homes and cozy lives, with few exceptions. Christmas carols are propagandistic; so are most secular Christmas songs.
I used to think secular Christmas songs had been written in the 50s, since that’s when I heard them, but probably not. They reflect the coziness many wanted to associate with that time, though it wasn’t cozy for EVERYBODY. Maybe it was a safe world for the majority , but not the minority whom the majority liked to persecute. To that minority, a lot of it must have seemed like a cruel joke.
Christmas songs in general insist on a point of view. The carols insist on Correct Theology. So does some classical music, but some of it (I don’t know the whole field, by any means) redeems the message with outstanding music and arrangements. Christians Be Joyful, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, is almost as wild as rock & roll. Handel’s Messiah is some of the most exhilarating music I’ve ever had the pleasure to sing.
At a slightly lower level, it’s nice to hear carols that you don’t hear everywhere and every year. If I were a musician asked to make a Christmas album, that’s the kind of music I’d look for. The best example I know is an album I grew up with, called Christmas with the Trapp Family Singers. It has songs in Latin, Spanish, French, and I think German. Only one or two standard Christmas carols snuck on to it. When I used to give tapes as Christmas presents I often gave recordings of that album, along with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a concerto for two trumpets by Vivaldi, and an Oboe Quartet by Mozart that seemed to fit the season. I tried to do the same on CD, but couldn’t find the original Trapp Family album. The one I found didn’t have all the songs of the original.
The canon (so to speak) of secular Christian music is quite conservative: I don’t hear more than two or three songs that have been added since my childhood. One song each by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and one by Jose Feliciano. Everything else seems to come out of the fifties or before. The Little Drummer Boy is one exception to that, having been (if I remember correctly) been introduced about 1960, and being theologically correct, though not as irritatingly as some. I still enjoy it after all these years.
Of course, since the radio started playing them before Thanksgiving, even, I’ll probably be pretty tired of them by the time Christmas actually comes. Tradition (such as it is) and saturation don’t go together that well.
For many people the Christmas season (maybe including Thanksgiving) is an ordeal to get through instead of a joyful occasion. The expectations are too high, and don’t correspond to many people’s reality. Those expectations look back to a homogenous culture in which everyone celebrated Christmas in pretty much the same way. I don’t know how true that was to begin with. Now the change to consumer Christmas, in which love is measured by the expense and number of the gifts one gives or receives pretty well undermines what the meaning used to be, to say nothing of the original meaning.
For me, it used to be a time of joyful expectation. I associate it with walking around town looking at the stores, and the Christmas customs my family had, which I haven’t tried to duplicate in adulthood. One of my family’s customs that probably few could copy was when my uncle and his family came to our house for Christmas dinner. Of course we opened presents after that, but the part I look back on with the greatest pleasure was when we gathered around the piano, my grandmother played, and we all sang choruses from Handel’s Messiah. That custom may have had something to do with Theological Correctness, but it had nothing to do with Commercial Christmas.
Perhaps a more realistic vision is a Christmas day in which children are overwhelmed with how many presents they get, and start misbehaving exactly as if they’d eaten too much candy. The mirror image might be of children whose parents can’t meet the expectations of the season. Those who don’t get a lot of presents who get jealous of those who get more. “I got a car for Christmas.” “I got a pair of shoes.”
Children disappointed, and parents (those who care) feeling guilty because they can’t fulfill the propagandistic cultural norms that ought not to be expectations in the first place. As much as I like some Christmas music, that aspect of the season is sad. So is the depression of those too disconnected to have a family they can enjoy Christmas with, or those who have lost family members in this season.
Although Christmas songs, secular and carols, dominate this season, I have to wonder about their effect. They remind us of a Christmas season that begins before Thanksgiving, a season when retailers make most of their profits for the year. I wonder how many expensive presents make children feel. Loved? Or bought off? Buying presents is a lot easier than spending time, which is how real love is most often expressed. Personally, I don’t expect presents from anyone at my advanced age, and if I get any I don’t expect anyone to know my tastes, or what I’d really like to have. It may be there are fewer things I want, too.
Maybe I’ll Be Home for Christmas best expresses how Christmas used to be better than it is now for many people. “If only in my dreams,” seems to say that it’s nearly impossible to get back to the beauty of Christmas for many people. I wish people could could find that beauty again.